Ted Libbey on Bernstein.
ART TALK WITH TED LIBBEY ON LEONARD BERNSTEIN
Ted Libbey: I remember very vividly the concert. It was a concert in Washington, D.C., by the New York Philharmonic. The program was Haydn Symphony Number 87, intermission, Mahler Symphony Number 5. And this was in 1968. September 29, 1968. So, what I’m telling you about happened 50 years ago. This was the first time I saw Leonard Bernstein conduct, and the first time I met him.
Mahler’s 5th under
Adam Kampe: That’s Ted Libbey, music scholar and friend of the late great Leonard Bernstein. Like the rest of the world, we’re celebrating Bernstein’s 100th birthday. Ted Libbey first met Bernstein back stage after the explosive Haydn/Mahler concert he mentioned. He was just 17 years old. They remained friends until Bernstein passed in 1990. But since Bernstein’s life was so rich, we’re narrowing our focus today to Bernstein’s favorite piece of music—Symphony No 5 in C-Sharp Minor by Gustav Mahler, and his own complex composition, Mass. This piece means a great deal to Libbey because he performed in it during college and later joined the cast of 189 in Vienna to perform in the European premiere. But first things first. Let’s go back in time to the concert that changed everything for a budding music lover who become an expert on classical music. After all, Ted Libbey wrote The NPR Listener’s Encyclopedia of Classical Music.
Ted Libbey: And when I got an opportunity to go hear him and that orchestra at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C.—this was before the Kennedy Center was built—I grabbed it, and I took my piano teacher with me, <chuckles> my Aunt Rose, and sat through this concert. One of the things I remember most vividly about it was, at one point in the Mahler symphony, Bernstein somehow being about a foot off the podium. He had jumped so high, he was literally elevated a foot off the podium, an image that I will never forget. His athletic and expressive conducting was a sight to behold, but even more so, the level of intensity of the music-making. You got the feeling that he was being animated by the music. And it was quite electric. I remember being deeply impressed by the chemistry there, and by the experience.
And I would come to learn that this symphony of Mahler’s, the Fifth, was a particular favorite of his, to such an extent that he was buried with the score in the coffin, the score to the Mahler Fifth.
Mahler’s 5th up
Interestingly, Bernstein ended up as the director of the New York Philharmonic which Mahler had been 50 years before. And Mahler had, in spite of only being there a few years, had put a stamp on that orchestra. So of all of the orchestras in the world it had the best Mahler tradition which probably made it possible for Bernstein to then move the needle when it came to Mahler in the 1960s as music director. But the affinity that he had for that man’s music clearly came in large part because of the similar nature.
Excerpt of YPC on Gustav Mahler
Bernstein: I admit it’s a problem to be both a conductor and a composer. There never seems to be enough time and energy to be both things. I ought to know because I have the same problem myself. It’s one of the reasons why I’m so sympathetic to Mahler. I understand his problem. It’s like being two different men locked up in the same body. One man is a conductor and one is a composer and they’re both one fellow called Mahler, or Bernstein. It’s like being a double man. But for him Mahler, the problem was much worse even. He was a double man in every part of … (fades under)
Libbey: Mahler, he was a conductor and composer who had to split his time between these two competing claims on his intelligence and his talent. But Bernstein had similar issues. He could not not compose but he also could not not conduct.
Mahler 5th up
- was a work that he returned to again and again. He recorded it with the New York Philharmonic as part of his original Mahler cycle which made such a huge impression and it really changed the game for Mahler’s music. Mahler had said my time will come. Well, it was Bernstein more than anyone else who made that time come in the 1960s. There had been other champions of Mahler, including Bruno Walter who had been his acolyte in Vienna, but Lenny so identified with Mahler, the composer, conductor, and with this music and its vastness and its anguish and the same kinds of personal issues and seeking to embrace the multitudes, literately and figuratively, that he really signed his name to Mahler.
Bernstein: In fact, we’re playing an awful lot of Mahler these days right here at the Philharmonic and the reason is that this year is 100th birthday. Imagine, he would’ve been 100 years old in July if he were still alive. And so we’re having this long birthday party for him by playing his music every week. And I thought why shouldn’t you be invited to this party, too, and celebrate with us. And that’s why we’re going to talk about Mahler today and play some of his music for you … (fades under)
Libbey: It has a final movement that is based on one of his earlier songs and Mahler was known as a song symphonist. And his early symphonies one through five all have some basis in song. But the fundamental thing is that that movement goes like a shot. It is a joyous romp. And I think that happy ending to a Mahler Symphony, it was really the last Mahler Symphony that had a happy ending. And it was the kind of rousing thing that a conductor like Bernstein, who believed in happy endings, would have found particularly fitting and appropriate to conduct.
Mahler 5th up. TRANSITION TO LB AS COMPOSER, MASS.
Libbey: He was an ace at music from an early age, and became, quickly, celebrated as both a conductor and composer. And so when he left the New York Philharmonic in whatever it was, 1970, as he stepped down as music director. Remember, he was still a young man. He was just over 50. And that sort of brings us to Mass …
Mass excerpt 1
… the piece that many now consider to have been the central work of his career, certainly the most ambitious work that he wrote.
Mass was commissioned for the opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., commissioned by Kennedy's widow Jacqueline. And was put on at the Kennedy Center in September 1971 when it opened. The idea is that it is a real mass, but Bernstein calls it a theater piece. Its title is Mass but below that Bernstein says a theater piece for singers, players, and dancers. That's not surprising, is it? Here's the guy who composed West Side Story, much of his music has words and this is, again, this is a key thing to remember with Bernstein. Many of Mahler’s symphonies have the words in them, too. Remember who got this ball rolling was Beethoven in the Ninth Symphony. So there is a through line: Beethoven, Mahler, Bernstein.
Mass excerpt 2 -
It was about faith. It was about what's the right thing to do about how do we keep our sanity? What do we find that will get us through? And as time has gone by the fact that this work has not only hung on but has seemed to rise in the esteem of many audiences and many people that see it despite being a period piece in many ways, says something about how well-written it is. And, also, about what Bernstein was really trying to accomplish as a composer.
Like many other mass compositions it has interpolations of other material. And in Bernstein's case he follows the Latin text but he also incorporates a lot of other material that is parallel in meaning or affect to what's being discussed in the text of the mass in a series of what we would call interjections, popular vernacular kinds of song, rock, blues, lots of words that are added to this. The piece calls for a large pit orchestra as well as a band on the stage as well as a full chorus, male and female chorus, as well as a children's boys chorus, boys choir, a group of singers and dancers who were known as the street chorus, a central figure called the celebrant and a single boy soprano as kind of an acolyte figure. I've probably left a few other things out but we’re talking about an enormous group of performers. If you put it all together it’s something like 270, 280 if you staff it up the way it should be.
Mass excerpt 3
A lot of critics were bothered by the fact that it went so boldly into so many different areas of music, allusions to all kinds of styles and so forth. That, too, has turned out to be prescient, as something actually ahead of its time rather than Bernstein raiding the trashcan, so to speak. It was actually Bernstein doing something that would, over the next 40 or 50 years, come to be done quite a lot in music which is to rope in a lot of different styles of music, an eclectic approach. This was on such a vast scale and done with Bernstein's typically bravura manner that it bothered some people but, in fact, it makes the piece very, very interesting. And it creates attention within the piece that is supposed to be there, this tension of elements. It's not supposed to be a piece that holds together nicely. It's supposed to be a piece that's bursting at the seams which is the way we all felt at that time. And it's the way it is now in this society. So, again, he was ahead of the time.
Mass excerpt 3
Adam Kampe: That was Ted Libbey, former director of media arts at the NEA and current arts advisor at PBS, on American musical icon and his friend, Leonard Bernstein. August 25, 2018 would be Bernstein’s 100th birthday. Happy Birthday, Leonard! To learn more about the man and his legend, check out leonardbernstein.com/at100. And to learn about Bernstein’s work for the stage and the screen, listen to our recent podcast with Rob Kapilow on arts.gov.
Excerpts of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 in C-Sharp Minor 5. Rondo: Finale, performed by the New York Philharmonic and conducted by Leonard Bernstein, from the album Symphony No. 5 in C-Sharp Minor, used courtesy of Sony Classical.
Excerpts of Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers I: Devotions before Mass: 3. Responsory - Alleluia; VI. Gloria: Trope: "Half of the People"; III. Second Introit: 1. In nomine Patris; VII. Meditation No. 2, from the album, Mass, used courtesy of Sony Classical and by permission of LEONARD BERNSTEIN MUSIC PUBLISHING CO LLC THE administered by Universal Music Publishing.
Excerpt of Beethoven’s Sonata No.9 In E Major, Op.14, No.1, Mvt. 3 Rondo: Allegro Comodo, performed by Seymour Lipkin, used courtesy of Newport Classic, Ltd.